FRH Philosophy: The Cure for Millennial Depression

Get out and walk in nature today. It doesn’t have to be a long walk, a full-fledged hiking trip or anything extravagant. Just get outside, get some fresh air and enjoy the dirt under your shoes and the sun on your head. We now live in a society where it is normal to spend entire days of the week inside. Some people only see the sun and outdoors on their way to and from work. That is not how our bodies have evolved to function. Millions of years of evolution have coded us to find our homeostasis (tranquility) outside in nature. That’s why the sun on our skin creates Vitamin D that gives us energy, smelling flowers and walking in the woods or through the open plains, or feeling a calm breeze on your face releases dopamine in our brains that makes us happy. We NEED to be outside. Not cooped up in an office hour after hour, day after day.

13103452_269873740018137_7985548354454353624_n

I’m a part of the millennial generation, the generation that is called “entitled” and “ungrateful”. We’ve grown up in a world dominated by television, microwaves, cell phones and the internet. But instant gratification has shown us time and time again that it is just the opposite of what the title suggests. We form shallow and meaningless internet based relationships with people who want to hang out and do things with you as long as there is nothing better to do anywhere else. If you’re depressed, take a pill. If you have anxiety, take a pill. If you have PTSD because you’ve been through some messed up stuff, just take all these pill and everything will be fine. I went through that following my return from Afghanistan in 2012. The pills don’t work. They make you numb to the world so that you walk through every day like a zombie in The Walking Dead.

13423956_291255317879979_5065621742139939270_n

You can’t synthesize happiness. You can’t make and keep friends, real friends, by liking pictures, sending snaps or swiping right. Real happiness comes from experiences, walking to the top of that hill to see the countryside laid out before you. Walking down the dirt path next to work, or next to your house, or school. Not because you NEED to, but because you can. One of the most peaceful sounds on the entire planet is the sound of rain falling on the forest floor. When the plants open up and the aroma of the forest comes to life. The dopamine dump in your brain erases the stress of what we call the “real” world. This might sound too good to be true, it might sound too easy, or maybe like too much work. But it is EXACTLY what you need.

sunrise

 

Happy Trails,

 

Aaron

Road to the AT: The Beginning

As far back as I can remember one of the things my father has always said is that he wants to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in his lifetime. Most of the time when I was growing up this was a “someday” muse. Something he would say infrequently and I would say that I wanted to go with him, then conversation would change to something else. We always spent a lot of time outdoors when I was growing up, riding bikes, camping and exploring several acres of forest behind my grandparent’s house. The latter being a favorite past time of my siblings and I, every time there was a family get together or excuse to go to our grandparent’s, we were out in the woods. But sometime after graduating high school, while juggling a bills, work and responsibility I became a homebody. Even during my military service (aside from Afghanistan) when the day was over we were having get togethers at the house, watching movies or some other indoor activity. Even in Alaska, where there was so much to do in vast wilderness. I kick myself now for not hiking some of the awesome trails that I was within driving distance of for those years.

I didn’t really find my love for hiking until about a year ago. Just before the New Year, having struggled with increasing weight, alcoholism and marriage woes stemming from PTSD symptoms that I have been dealing with for years. Having been medicated by the VA to the point that I was numb to everything and basically going through my weekly routine like a zombie. I decided that 2016 would be a different year for me. I had gained so much weight that running was painfully hard on my knees and ankles, but walking was easy enough to manage. So after doing a few quick google searches about how to optimize calories burned while walking, I came across article after article about backpacking and hiking and just how many calories the sport burns.

Shortly after that I sent my father a cryptic “I think I’m going to start hiking this year so I can lose weight’ text. To which he replied that he would hike with me to help me lose weight and get healthy again. A few weeks later and after several hundreds of dollars’ worth of Amazon purchases to outfit myself, we picked a snowy Sunday the second week in January as our first hiking trip. We looked up local trails in the Morgan Monroe State Forest area, about a 40 minute drive from my house at the time. Once we decided to check out the “Low Gap Trail”, Dad drove up about an hour from where he lives and we set out in the fresh snow. After about an hour long 45mph drive on treacherous highways, and passing the trail twice (this picture is from a power line access ¾ of a mile down the road from the trailhead that we thought we were at) we set out.

I threw a 40 pound pack, laden down with an enormous amount of crap that I never could have used on a day hike under any circumstance, on top of my 290lb frame (at the time). Now, if you’ve never hiked on a trail in fresh snow. Imagine trying to walk uphill at a 15/25 degree incline in the finest powdery sand that you can imagine, with an extra 40 pounds on your back. Needless to say I was questioning my life choices after about the first quarter mile. We stopped at the top of the second “big” hill that we encountered and I vividly remember standing there, in the middle of nowhere with my Dad, catching my breath and watching the snow continue to fall. I remember how peaceful it was in that forest, away from the sounds of the city and people complaining about the snow and the cold and everything else that we can think of to complain about. The only sound I heard was the soft patter of snowflakes bouncing off my hat and the calamitous thumping of my heartbeat in my ears. We continued on past newly fallen trees, over a creek bed and down a ravine. About a mile and a half into the 10 mile trail when we came across a camp site completely buried in snow. So we decided to drop our packs and get a fire going to warm up. My Dad was an Eagle Scout growing up and spent most of his adult life in the Army, I spent 4 years in Alaska, soaking up extreme cold weather and deep wilderness survival skills from field problems and mandatory trainings that you get living in a place as frigid and deadly as interior Alaska. But none of that mattered to the fire pit that day. We dug the pit down to the ash base, carved the ice covered bark from the twigs we found for kindling (it had rained for days before it froze and snow came) and found some dry leaves on some standing deadwood nearby. But after 30 minutes of trying everything, including torching everything with a propane cook stove, we still had no fire.

At this point we decided that the best way to war up would be to hike back to the truck the way we came. As we were backtracking, following our footsteps from 30 minutes earlier that were already filling in with new snow, I started to realize what I’ve been missing. Sweaty and out of breath despite temps in the low teens, lamenting myself for getting so out of shape and letting something like PTSD change so much of me I started to feel like this was exactly where I was supposed to be. Out on some crazy winter adventure with my Dad, bragging about how outdoorsy we are but failing to start a fire when we really could have used it. My first of many hike therapy sessions took place on that 1.5 mile stretch of the Low Gap Trail in the fresh Indiana snow. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to fall in love with the outdoors again and it would change my life in more ways than I could have ever imagined.

Hiking into the Future: What comes next.

I’ve been on hiatus from blog posts since a work promotion took me from Indiana to Texas to launch a new Amazon building. The move was expensive and taxing and work has been so hectic that I’ve only been able to day hike twice since relocating. But I hope to get out and start hiking more frequently again once things slow down after Christmas.

In the time since relocating I’ve struggled with my vision of Free Range Hiking and what I want to do moving forward. I initially started this about a year ago as a way to share some of the adventures that my father and I were going on during out weekend hikes. But along the way I started to see benefits to the weekend hikes that I didn’t anticipate when I started doing this.

I went from dealing with near crippling PTSD, heavily medicated by the VA to deal with my “issues” and having a severe drinking problem. In the last year I’ve managed to overcome my PTSD symptoms, no longer need to use any of the medications that I was on before and have developed a healthy respect for the bottle and what it can do if you let it take a hold of you.

For me, being out in nature is a form of healing. I feel “reset” after a day or two out in the woods. The peace and comradery that comes with hiking alone and in small groups outdoors, sharing knowledge and enjoying all of the simple things that the world has to offer is such a stark contrast to the concrete prisons that we have all become accustomed to living in that it feels almost alien at first. But after a while you start to understand that this isn’t just where you WANT to be, it’s where you NEED to be. There is something deep down within all of us that comes alive when we’re out in nature, something that dies a little bit the more we confine ourselves in our decorated dungeons that we call home, with fancy electronics and shiny cars that marry us to payments and mortgages that we resign ourselves to for our entire lives. Things and the pursuit of more things. Now when someone says something along the lines of “When it’s all over it won’t be the things that you had that you remember, it will be the experiences that you cherish” it’s almost like reading a hallmark card. The words are nice, we think about it for a moment before we go back to dreaming about that big house and fancy car that we want to get.

I don’t want to live by those rules anymore and I don’t want to chase the things that society says I need to be happy, because I don’t need them. I want to show other people that they don’t need them either. If hiking and enjoying the outdoors can help me overcome two crippling disorders without the use of medication, why not use it to help other people?

I ask myself this question almost daily now, I talk to family and friends, veteran buddies, colleagues and anyone that will listen. During these conversations I’ve found other people who have gone through the same things and found outdoor recreation to be as therapeutic as I have. So I keep asking myself, why not share this with more people? That question burns in my mind day in and day out. So I’ve finally come to the decision that I want to use the Free Range Hiking name as a platform to help other Veterans and sufferers of PTSD and other anxiety disorders. I want to use it as a way to help people who feel like the VA healthcare system or the traditional healthcare and mental health routes are not working or are not for them. During the next year I plan to establish a donation fund or possibly register FRH as a 403c Charitable organization with a mission to fund trips and outfit those in need of alternative or “hike therapy” to deal with PTSD, anxiety and depression. During this time I plan to work with members close to the organization to branch out and begin accepting applications across the country for event hosts and hike guides. Experienced, capable, qualified individuals that would be willing to donate time to help out people in their area that need these hike therapy trips. I expect the growth of FRH to be slow out of the gates and it will likely operate mainly out of Texas where I am currently located. But may also have a limited capacity in Indiana.

We will still be doing leisure hikes, posting pictures and sharing articles that we find helpful. Our ultimate goal is still to become Thru Hikers on the AT. But in the mean time we want to start helping people along the way and do our small part to make a positive impact in the world while bringing more people into the world of hiking as a way to heal from within.

Happy Trails Everyone,

Aaron

Dehydrating Healthy Trail Food

One of the big struggles that you face when you’re out on the trail is balancing nutrition with the amount of calories that you need being as active as you are when you’re hiking. A lot of people turn to instant meals that are loaded with preservatives, tuna packets, peanut butter, tortillas and such. One of the problems with doing this is that a lot of this stuff really isn’t the best for us and we miss out on nutrients that we shouldn’t be getting away from when we’re out on the trail for an extended period of time.

Having some deep discussions on this topic recently, my father and I have been batting around the idea of dehydrating out own food prior to taking off for Springer Mountain when we start the AT, stockpiling the food and having it mailed to certain locations every week or so, so that we can pick it up and resupply at our designated spots along the way.

So with this in mind I’ve been looking for some recipes and tips on how to dehydrate and store your own healthy food. Which ultimately led me to Chef Glenn, The Backpacking Chef and this gem of a website. So I thought I’d share the link.

http://www.backpackingchef.com/dehydrating-food.html

 

Closing out an Active Month

The Free Range Hikers have seen quite a few trails this month and a myriad of different weather conditions that coincide with your typical Midwest winter. We got out to see the natural cave formations on the Rock Shelter trail, muddy trails at Fort Harrison State Park, An awesome albeit unintended overnighter on the Three Lakes Trail followed by a 60 degree jaunt through the mud to some more epic views at Starved Rock in Oglesby, Illinois and an unexpected trail closure half way through the Mason Ridge Trail. Now we’re looking at a nice hike at Mississinewa up in north central Indiana for our last February 2016 hike that should put us around 40 trail miles for the month.

Since we’re looking at warmer temps in March and we’re finally starting to get ourselves accustomed to longer treks, we’ll likely be pulling more overnighters in the coming weeks. But we have more gear to test, more knowledge to pick up and more experiences to share along the way. Hopefully as the weather gets warmer and people start to come out of hibernation we’ll see some new faces in the Free Range Hiking community. After all, the goal of all of this is to get people to get out and enjoy the outdoors as much as we do.

The more people that learn to enjoy the journey and stop worrying so much about the destination, the happier we’ll all be.
Happy Trails!

The Art of Winter Hiking

The winter months, after the holidays once the trees have come down the turkey has been consumed and the extended family has been tolerated to your near breaking point. It’s at this point that we find ourselves struggling to stay active or even motivated to go outside and do anything. Maybe it’s the shorter daylight hours, maybe it’s the cold, and maybe seeing family was so utterly exhausting that you need to go into a mini hibernation. Whatever the case is, it usually isn’t until late March or early April that we realize we’re a little heavier than we were before the snow started falling and maybe those stairs are getting us a little more winded than we’d like to admit.
This year we’ve found a way around all of this in the form of winter hiking. While most people might think this is crazy, as long as you’re dressed appropriately and have a little bit of technical knowledge there is really not much difference than any other time of the year. With the exception being that you now have the opportunity to see some truly breathtaking scenery and snap some cool (not cold) pictures. It all comes down to planning and gear. Dressing appropriately is 70% of the battle and probably closer to 90% when you factor in sweat management. But we’ll talk more about that a little later.
If you find yourself wanting to get out and enjoy the outdoors, but are put off by the colder temperatures. A short list of cold weather gear will give you all you need to be successfully active in the cold.

I recommend the following gear / clothing:

Balaclava
Lightweight thermal layer
Waffle (mid-weight) thermal layer
Water resistant jacket or coat
Trekking poles
Flashlight or headlamp
2 pairs of gloves
2 pairs of socks
Yak tracks or ice cleats
Waterproof hiking shoes / boots
Fire starters (lighter/matches + petroleum soaked cotton balls)
Sleeping bag rated to the coldest temp it will get
Single person tent or something improvise a shelter
And a folding or fixed blade knife

You can find a full list of recommended winter camping gear at http://www.outdoors.org/publications/outdoors/2002/2002-winter-gear.cfm

If you have these things, water and food for the trip, you have everything you need to comfortably hike and even stay overnight in on the trail in cold weather. You’ll want to remember though, that you dehydrate quickly in the cold and that your body burns extra calories keeping itself warm. So it’s always a good idea to have a Lifestraw or water purification tablets and extra food for a cold weather hike.

Once you’ve accumulated or pulled out of storage everything from the list above and found a suitable daypack to stuff it all into, you’re ready to hit the trail. One of the most important things to remember during cold weather activity is sweat management. Especially when you’re hiking some distance on a trail. You usually dress to be warm when you’re not doing much outside. But when you’re on the trail that amount of insulation will probably get you sweating pretty quickly and that isn’t good in the cold. Remember that cold temps are uncomfortable and wet clothing is uncomfortable but cold temps and wet clothing is deadly. With that in mind you’ll probably quickly find that even in temps in the mid to low teens, all you really need when you’re moving will probably be the lightweight thermals. But keep the mid-weights close at hand for when you stop, as you will cool off very quickly. You’ll also want to bring an extra hat or remove the one you’re wearing if you find yourself sweating too much. Sweating through your hat will completely destroy its insulating power until it’s dried again.

A lot of trails will be slick and treacherous during the snowy months if you live in a place that gets a substantial amount of snowfall. In these cases pulling out the trekking poles, that I recommend year round, and the shoe spikes will give you that extra traction that you need to get through the more difficult portions of the hike, if you’re on a moderate or rugged trail.

Keeping these things in mind and packing appropriately for YOU will always be the key to a happy hike. But getting out there and actually doing it is half the battle and you’ll likely pick up this information and a lot more as you put foot to trail.

Happy hiking!

12524204_10153771600325767_1102722212902636774_n

 

Tents Vs. Hammocks: The Great Debate

One of the subjects you’ll hear debated the most between hikers and backpackers is the preference between tent camping and hammock camping. This is probably something that you don’t think about a whole lot until you do some research, talk to someone who enjoys hammock camping, or have enjoyed using a hammock while out in the wilderness before. On the surface this doesn’t seem like it would be something that would require a whole lot of thought either way. But the more you dig into it the more you see that there is a wealth of information for both sides and avid supporters of both.
One of our biggest concerns as hikers / backpackers is the weight of our packs. For this reason alone a hammock seems like the logical choice for overnighters in the back country. Without the added weight of tent poles you can easily save yourself precious pounds and make those steep uphill climbs and downhill treks a little less painful. As anyone can tell you that’s ever hiked any significant distance. A few pounds can mean the difference between feeling a little tired at the end of the day and feeling like your legs have been utterly destroyed.

875843

There are clear positives and negatives to each, for example in order to use a hammock you need to find a place with grown trees that are spaced in a way that allows you to hang the hammock. In the same regard you have to be in an area that has trees in the first place. A lot of people on the hammock side of the argument will pose the question “If there are no tree’s is that a place you really want to be camping anyway?” which is a point that I see eye to eye with, but doesn’t necessarily hold true in every situation. Something else to contend with is the fact that you’re suspended in the air all night. While this can do wonders for people with back problems, it does make it a little more challenging to stay warm on cooler nights, unless of course you invest in a pricey underquilt. There is also the issue of bugs and rain that you have contend with when using a standard camping hammock. There are however much more cutting edge hammocks that address these concerns and the problem of heat loss if you’re willing to pay for the technology. A great example of these cutting edge hammocks are available online at https://www.junglehammock.com/ by Clark Hammocks. These are really more of a hybrid between a tent and a hammock and some models can even be used as a tent if you’re in an area that doesn’t have trees.  Another added benefit to our more patriotic hikers is that Clark is an American company that uses American material to build its gear, they also stand behind everything they build 100%.

db_file_img_249_610x360

On the other side of the argument are the tent campers. If you did any kind of outdoor activity as a family when you were growing up, you’re probably more than accustomed to tent camping. This is generally what we think of when the word camping comes to mind. However, for the hiker / backpacker there are some extra considerations to consider when you decide to drag the old tent along. Foremost among these concerns is the fact that you need to find a suitable place off trail to pitch the tent. This means doing your best to clear the ground of twigs, rocks and debris. Only to find out in most cases, in the middle of the night, that you missed one or two of them. At which point you spend the rest of the night with a rock or stick in your back. However, you do get the added protection of being enclosed in the tent, which conserves warmth and usually does a fantastic job of stopping the wind and rain if you’re stuck in bad weather. While single person tents tend to be lightweight and easy to assemble and disassemble, they can get a little pricy. In most cases you’re going to get what you pay for, unless you get lucky with an Amazon deal or find a gem somewhere in the discount section.

maxresdefault
At the end of the day (literally) it comes down to trying both and sticking with what you prefer. I recommend playing around with both tents and hammocks to find what fits your needs and your style the best. I know I intend to get plenty of campfire time with both this year. Hopefully you get the chance to get out and do the same.

Product reviews

It’s been a fun week for the Free Rangers, if you consider 104 fevers, spinal taps, and lopsided Super Bowl victory after-parties fun. I’ll let Aaron explain more (HIPAA violations anyone?) at his leisure, but…

I will say that the plan for this weekend, this Valentines Day weekend, involves sub-zero hiking, overnight camping, and product reviews.  And mea culpas to the women in our lives for rushing through the whole hearts and flowers scenario on Valentine’s Eve.

My reviews support my goal of paring down what I’ll need on the Appalachian Trail, and honing in on the most versatile and useful items to carry.  I should start with my pack, and the stuff protecting my feet.  I’ll give you the whole scoop in this weekend’s product review video, with maybe-just-maybe a bit of horseplay thrown in for good measure.

Stay tuned.

Esbit CS585HA 3-Piece Lightweight Camping Cook Set for Use with Solid Fuel Tablets (Esbit 1300 Degree Smokeless Solid Fuel Cubes for Backpacking, Camping and Hobby – 20 Pieces Each 4g) Included as add on through Amazon.com

I want to start this post off by saying that anytime you buy something that you intend to use on a hike, while camping, or anytime you are going to have to rely on the product whatsoever, you need to be sure to test the product before you’re in a situation where you need to use it. In this review I’ll be talking about my experience with

and
Respectively.
I’d like also like to say that the solid fuel used and pictured here came as an add on to the cook set for $4 on Amazon.com and that I did not have very high hopes for this solid fuel as a standalone heat source, for good reason.
The solid fuel tablets are very small, about 1/3 the size of most that are on the market at a comparable price. The packaging states that a single solid fuel tablet will burn for 8-12 minutes and boil water on its own. Unfortunately this claim is not even close to being true. Had I not tested these and been in a situation where I needed to boil water to drink or cook with in the backwoods I would have been very much out of luck. As it was I set this cook set up in my garage to reduce wind but with the door open and an ambient temperature around 30 degrees. The first tablet burned for about 11 minutes and managed to get a small bit of steam off the top of the water, but little more. I decided that maybe because it was so cold I would try more fuel to see if I could truly get the water to boil. So the next go around I used 2 or the tablets, which burned for approximately 10 minutes, but only got the water up to 155 degrees Fahrenheit before burning out. It’s also worth noting that the solid fuel uses some sort of fish oil as a base and will make an area about 10 feet around where you’re cooking smell like you’re processing salmon. Needless to say, I was less than impressed with the solid fuel, but as an add on I wasn’t too upset about the price.
I did go back later with the cook-set, used the solid fuel as a starter and fed small sticks into the opening at the bottom of the cook set and got water from a semi-frozen stream to boil in about 20 minutes on one of my earlier hikes. So, because of the small size of these fuel tablets and the fact that you get 20 of them, they can be useful to get a bigger fire going in pinch. While I absolutely do not recommend them as a standalone fuel source, they might be work keeping around your fire starting kit, since they start easily and will burn even when wet. However, strong wind will put these out so if you’re using any type of solid fuel source be sure to setup a wind screen or dig a hole about twice the size of your cook stove and about 5-6 inches deep, then use the dirt from the hole to heighten the barrier around the cook stove to keep the wind at bay.
Below are the links to the products on Amazon.com